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By Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis

Saturday, May 26, 2012.

Editor's note:

Mende Nazer’s shocking story of modern-day slavery – told in the global best-seller ‘Slave’ –touched the world. Later made into a film, it told the harrowing story of a girl from the Sudan taken into captivity, and then sold into slavery. Written by the award-winning journalist Damien Lewis, it exposed the brutality of the modern slave trade, and turned it into a major global issue.

In this, enthralling, moving sequel Mende Nazer tells how  in the summer of 2007 she decided to risk everything in a journey back to the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, her homeland. She left behind the relative security of London, her new home, to return to the war-ravaged land of her birth. But she would be risking everything she had fought for in an effort to make contact with the family she’d lost when she was taken into captivity.

And over an epic, harrowing journey, Mende discovers what freedom really means. It is a story that will touch the hearts of millions.

Chapter Thirteen: To Darfur

Intesar gathered together two women and a little girl. She led them to a quiet corner of the camp, where a broken tree formed a makeshift bench. The little girl sat down next to me. She pulled her pink headscarf closer around her face and hunched forwards. Her name was Fatima, she told me. She thought she was nine years old, but she didn’t know her exact age. She could barely look at me. She kept her eyes glued to the ground.

“I was in the forest when it happened,” she murmured. “The first thing that happened was the Janjaweed smashed me in the face with a rifle. Then two of them carried me to a tree and pushed me onto the ground. I can’t remember what happened next, I can’t remember. There was just this huge shadow fell over me and it all went black.”

I had my arm around Fatima’s shoulders, and I pulled her closer to me. “Its all right,” I told her. “I know. I know.”

“I came to sometime later,” she whispered. “My clothes scattered everywhere. I was bleeding from between my legs and there was this terrible pain, so I knew they had done something to me. Afterwards, I was in so much pain I couldn’t move. I was lying there and I called to some passing villagers. They tried to help me but I couldn’t walk.”

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “I’m sorry … I know, I know …”

I hugged Fatima and tried to comfort her. But at the same time I was grief stricken myself, the hot bitter tears trickling down my cheeks. This little girl was the same age as I had been when I was caught up in the raid, and equally as delicate and innocent. And in a similar way to me, she had had the innocence and joy of childhood ripped away from her by truly evil people. That the same horrors were happening all over again in Sudan, year after year, decade after decade, cut me to the heart. It was so awful and so inconceivable, and yet so horribly true – for here was the human evidence before my very eyes.

“The people who found me made a stretcher from tree branches,” Fatima continued. “Then they lifted me up and began walking. But they knew they couldn’t take me to the village, as it had been attacked. So they took me with them and guarded me and we started walking . . . Eventually, I met my mum on the road to Kadugli. It was like a miracle that I’d found her. And since then we stayed together in this camp.”

“How long did it take you to walk here, little sister?” I asked.

“We walked for six months,” Fatima answered.

“Oh my God! Six months … But how did you survive?”

“We were hungry and we had no food, so we had to beg off people on the way. I’m happy to be here now, with my mum. I’m just tired. I’m just so tired.”

I sat there and held Fatima close to me as her story ended. From behind us I could hear that my mum and dad had started to cry.

“I know, my little daughter, I know,” my mum sobbed, as she stroked Fatima’s hair. “You can do nothing, can you, you can do nothing …”

“Bless you, Mende, bless you,” my dad said. “Bless you that you talk to these people and see ways get help for them.”

I just hoped beyond hope that my dad was right – that there might be something that I could do to help, that my being here might achieve something.

A young woman called Medina stepped forward to speak to me next. She had been beautiful once, and might be so again – but for now her face was screwed up with a bitter anger and pain. She was in her late twenties, Medina told me, and she had three young children. But when the Arab raiders attacked her village at night she lost her husband in the chaos. She still didn’t know until today if he was alive or dead. She ran back to her hut to save her children, but the raiders captured her. Three of them dragged her away to a clearing in the forest. They had held her there for three days.

“I can’t really tell you what they did to me,” Medina said, her voice strangled with fear and revulsion. “People know what men do to women . . . When they’d finished with me, they threw me into the bush to die. That’s where the people from the village found me. My youngest boy was just one-and-a-half years old. He was crying for me and needed my milk, but I didn’t even want to live. After what they had done to me, I just wanted to die. I didn’t even want to live for my children . . .”

Medina’s voice was full of an embittered rage, and as she spoke her eyes were dry of tears. Her anger and her pain was bottled up inside her still, her trauma internalised and gnawing away at her soul. I could barely imagine what she had been through. What sort of horror would make a mother to want to abandon her infant child and die? What sort of evil men, what sort of animals, could do this to a defenceless woman? A mother? A fellow human being?

“So, what did you do?” I asked her, as gently as I could.

Medina looked at me. “My friends from the village convinced me to live. I don’t know how, but they did. They convinced me to stay alive for the love of my children, for them, so that they too might live.”

I took her hand in mine and held it tight. “I’m so glad …”

“We knew that we couldn’t stay in that area,” Medina continued. “So we started walking. At first we didn’t know where we were headed, but then we heard there was sanctuary in the Nuba Mountains. So we walked for four months. We were just walking and begging for food. We told people we were starving, we had been in the war, we had no clothes and nowhere to sleep, and so people helped us. And finally, we made it here to safety.”

I didn’t know what to say, or how I could thank Medina for talking to me. I was feeling punch drunk from the trauma, overwhelmed by her suffering. I gave her a hug, and tried to find the right words. But before I could do so another woman came forward to speak to me. As Median turned to leave my eyes met hers’, and in a look I tried to communicate what my voice had found it so difficult to say. Thank you for speaking with me, but more, so much more that that – thank you for living. Those evil men may have taken your body, but they didn’t kill your spirit. You survived, and with you your children survived.

I turned to speak to the next woman. She sat down next to me, and I recognised her immediately from the group gathering under the tree. Even then, she had seemed one of the most distraught and hopeless of them all. I wondered what on earth the horrors of her story might entail, and I wondered if I had the strength to hear it all.

Her name was Khawa Ahmed, she told me. She tried to talk, but she seemed so overcome by anguish that her body had slumped and collapsed in on itself. Each time she tried to speak her shoulders hunched forwards and her face collapsed in a paroxysm of grief. Yet slowly, sentence by painful sentence, her story started to emerge.

The Arab raiders had attacked her village at six o’clock, just before dawn. She awoke to find her hut on fire. Her children were still asleep but her husband was already awake and at the door. He was gunned down in front of her very eyes. Flames were set in the roof thatch and they quickly engulfed her hut. She tried to grab her three children and run but the Arab raiders were all around her. She turned from their hooves and their guns and fled, losing hold of her children in the chaos and terror. She didn’t even know if her children had burned to death in the hut. All she knew was that she had lost them all.

I was speechless, frozen with horror. A fire like ice was raging deep inside me. All I could do was hold Khawa closer, and dry the tears that were streaming down her face.

“Oh my God, you poor thing,” my mum whispered, from behind me. “If you know they’re dead, at least you can pray for them. But this not knowing – this the worst thing.”

Her mum and dad had lived in a neighbouring hut, Khawa continued. But the last she saw of their hut as she fled the village was a sheet of flame. How did she get here, I asked her? She had walked, following the other survivors. It had taken them seven months. People gave them water on the way. They had heard about a place called the Nuba Mountains – a place where black people like them could live in peace and be free.

How did she survive the journey, I asked? She didn’t know. It was a miracle. She had begged food from villagers. Those that could feed her did so. It was a terrible time. But now was worse. Now, she was completely alone with nothing left to live for.

I sat with Khawa for several minutes, just holding her as she wept. I had never met a person so bereft of everything that had made her life worth living. I wondered what on earth made her go on, why she hadn’t just died somewhere on that epic journey. As I held her close to me I felt her cold, empty darkness seep into my heart. I shuddered. How would she ever recover, I wondered? How could she ever come back from here? No human being should ever face the evil and inhumanity that Khawa had suffered. How could anyone endure it? How could she go on? What was there to live for?

It was Intesar who finally came and prised Khawa away from me. She placed an arm around her shoulders and led her away to a group of women nearby. Then she returned to tell me her own story. There was something so different about Intesar, about the light in her eyes and the pride and joy on her beautiful face. I wondered why? I could only imagine that her story had to be so different from Khawa and the others.

“At night they attacked my village,” Intesar began. “I have two children and we were sleeping. They set fire to the huts and then they were trying to kill everybody. Either you stayed in the hut and burned to death or you ran and they killed you anyway. But I took one child and my husband took the other and together we fled.”

I held Intesar’s hand tightly. I willed her story to have a happy ending, something to lift me out of the blackness that surrounded me.

“We ran and we ran and we escaped the raiders,” Intesar continued. “We walked for four months to get here. When we reached some of the towns on the way, we saw Arabs on the streets and we knew we weren’t safe. We were terrified of them, so we carried on walking. Sometimes we didn’t eat for days on end. Finally, we heard of this place called the Nuba Mountains and we made our way here. And here we found safety.”

“But what about you children?” I blurted out. “Are they okay?”

Intesar smiled. “I have a little girl and a little boy, and both of them are here safely with us. We carried them most of the way. We feel safe here, we feel secure. There is no racism. No one tells you that you are black and that because of that you should be killed.”

I smiled back at Intesar, tearfully. “Thank you,” I whispered. “Thank you for telling me a story with a happy ending …”

Freedom is published by Endeavour Press and is now available on Amazon UK and USA

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